Executive In Exile

Former Knicks GM Ernie Grunfeld Talks About the Firing, Friendship, and The Future Of The Knicks

During the duller moments of the NBA Finals, more than a few mystery-minded MSG denizens were overheard wondering whether one of the dozens of fans seen wearing Ernie Grunfeld masks was, well, Ernie Grunfeld. n n They should not have bothered. The deposed Knicks president and general manager was in far too much psychic pain to attend. Besides, even the largest Garden seat could not possibly have held his well-built 6-6 frame— not with that humongous knife sticking out of the middle of his back.

"I watched the games at home," Grunfeld says. "Alone. With my family."

Grunfeld is not one of your run-of-the-mill "disgruntled ex-employees." A Knicks forward from 1982­86, he was first a color analyst (1986­89), then an assistant coach (1989­90) for the team after his playing days ended. Moved into the executive suite, he went from director of basketball administration (1990) to vice president of player personnel (1991­93) to vice president and GM (1993­96) to president and GM (1996­99). His rapid advancement was no coincidence: based on his (mainly) masterful moves, Grunfeld was soon widely acknowledged as one of the top young basketball minds in the NBA.

AP/Wide World
"Never exactly friends": Ernie Grunfeld and Jeff Van Gundy
AP/Wide World

So, understandably enough, two months after the ax was swung by MSG president Dave Checketts, the ex-GM is still reluctant to recall all the details of his beheading. "I don't want to take the attention away from the players," he says in a voice so painfully low you can barely discern the words. "Not right now. This should be their time in the limelight, not mine. I'm so proud of them. They did fantastically well to get as far as they did."

"Especially after what we all went through," he adds, even more haltingly.

What Grunfeld is too classy to say is that his situation is simply saturated with the most outrageous irony. The team that did so "fantastically well" was his team, put together by his vision, through his trades and drafts. "Firing Ernie was not just an enormous mistake," says one Knicks insider who's worked closely with both Grunfeld and Checketts for years. "It was more than that. It was a shameful act. I'm telling you, this thing made the whole office sick. For weeks afterwards, everyone here was walking around ashen gray, looking like they were about to throw up."

It wasn't just that Grunfeld was so good at what he did. Or that he is such an easygoing guy. No, the reaction to the firing was so profound Knicks-wide, and leaguewide, because Grunfeld and Checketts were the best of friends as well.

Their wives socialized. Their nine kids— Checketts has six, Ernie three— played together all the time like some hoops-fueled Brady Bunch. During the early years of their Knicks administration, these two sandy-haired young guys from different backgrounds— Checketts is a Mormon believer from Utah, Grunfeld a Romanian Jew via Forest Hills— had such an aura of enthusiasm over their united success that it managed to melt even the most cynical of NBA hearts. "After the first half of each game, I would try to nudge away from the seat next to Dave in our GM box," says Grunfeld. "But, relentless, he would come right after me. I mean, he got so psyched he'd be punching me in the arm and the shoulder— hard!— after every basket. After a while I was all black-and-blue— so I'd start to punch him back. By the end of the game we were like a couple of silly kids hitting on each other. We had so much fun."

So where did it all go wrong? How did these two decent men get caught up in such an indecent situation? "This city, with all the pressures and all the press, has a way of dividing people," says Checketts. When asked for examples, he cites "Al Bianchi and Rick Pitino, Dave DeBusschere and Hubie Brown," all Knicks coaches and GMs who eventually became estranged. So is Checketts talking about Grunfeld and Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy? Nah. Looking at his haunted visage and watching him squirm, it's obvious that these "divided people" are Ernie and himself.

Coming into the season, Grunfeld knew he was about to embark on a risky, perilous path. "With Michael Jordan's retirement, I knew there was an unprecedented opportunity for us to win an NBA championship," he says. "But I also knew that, in order to take full advantage of that opportunity, we had to make some drastic changes."

To wit: the aging, creaky-kneed, slower-than-molasses outfit that relied too much on a physically punishing defense for so long now needed to get younger, swifter, and much more versatile.

But to accomplish that, and to do it under the NBA salary cap, some important feathers had to be seriously ruffled. Along with the less significant Chris Mills and Terry Cummings, wildly popular Knicks vets Charles Oakley and John Starks were traded in order to acquire Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell. And the fans, predictably egged on by a lemming-like press and basketball ignoramuses like Mike and the Mad Dog, went into a full howl.

"It didn't matter," says Grunfeld. "As we were constituted, the team was not going to get any better. Camby was 10 years younger than Charles. He is a 6-11 guy with great 'length' who was the second pick in the draft a couple of years ago and had extremely live legs. And, talking to everyone who knew him, I knew that his 'soft' rep was unfair as well. I knew that, with the positive prodding of respected veterans like Patrick [Ewing] around him, he was the kind of kid who would respond by playing hard.

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